Jim Harrison R.I.P.

Jim Harrison died the other day, a man I knew was something of a character but didn’t know how much. I have admired his poetry but not got around yet to his novels. There are exceptions, but as a general rule writers are dull dogs. I suppose it’s because they save what is most vivid and interesting about themselves for the page. Harrison, like Hemingway, was one of those larger-than-life characters with plenty to go around for both life and fiction. The NYT had a venerating obituary that included a dig at “the self-regarding literary soirees of New York, for which he had little but contempt.” It sounds like whoever wrote the obituary shares that sensible view. It is rare to find anyone with anything good to say about literary circles. Dorothy Parker appears at the end of her life to have despised the time she wasted at the Algonquin Round Table. Writers are a venomous lot, although again the rule is not inflexible. Joyce Carol Oates, the furious writing machine, is said to be nice, and Stephen King is famously generous in his praise for other authors. On the other hand, Paul Theroux is one of the nastiest people I’ve met. His feud with V.S. Naipaul, an even nastier piece of work if you believe what you read, was the stuff of legend.

Harrison summered in Montana and wintered in Arizona, blazing away at wildlife in both places. He kept a pack of mongrels, fished, ate and drank prodigiously, and appears to have always kept a cigarette burning. He once flew to France for a lunch that consisted of 37 courses and 19 wines and took 11 hours to eat. Another time, the Times tells us, he shared a lunch with  Orson Welles where the two put away a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a leg of lamb with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports and a chaser of cocaine. No one had a clock on that marathon but twilight must have been coming on. If Harrison had taken better care of himself, maybe he wouldn’t have been cut down at a mere 78. (Rimshot) To his dislike, he was continually compared to Hemingway, another famed outdoorsman and trencherman. But Ernest was almost epicene in comparison, particularly in later life when he was into cross-dressing. The Times ran a photo of Harrison with the obituary that told you as much as all the words. He had a lived-in face, as rugged as a butte with strong outcroppings of Rabelaisian voluptuary. I sent off for a copy of one of his novels. It cost a penny plus three bucks shipping. And you wonder why the book trade is in such shape and most writers are poor as church mice.

The Politico website has a story by its media sage Jack Shafer explaining why the Trump-Cruz cage match over infidelities will go into extra rounds. “Whether valid or not, an individual’s sex life has come to stand as a marker of trustworthiness. Once the subject is breached, it takes superhuman powers by the press to avoid talking about it.” Many things can be said about the media, but superhuman powers is not one of them. And why should the subject be sniffed at as the supercilious French did until only recently? The last two presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, found themselves in the crosshairs for women trouble formerly was seen as no more than a minor peccadillo, certainly nothing that would cause a sophisticated adult to raise an eyebrow. François Mitterrand, the president who came before them, had two children from extra-marital affairs and the French media turned a blind eye. It was his private business.

That was the case in Washington, D.C., Shafer points out, until 1979 when an article that the New Republic deep-sixed appeared in the Washington Monthly about Teddy Kennedy’s rampant womanizing. It offered no details but blandly argued that his philandering should be seen as “as a legitimate issue in the campaign.” It was left to later times to disclose that Teddy, having a bit of afternoon delight in mind, trolled Washington streets in his chauffeured limousine offering rides to young female government workers. If he got turned down, he rolled the window back up and they drove on to the next one. It worked pretty well for him.

Hitler gained complete power over the German army in 1938 when it was learned the war minister in his government had married a woman thirty-five years younger who had posed for pornographic photos taken by a Czech Jew with whom she cohabited and who was on a Berlin police register as a prostitute. To rub salt in the wound, Hitler and Hermann Goring had stood up for the couple at their wedding ceremony. The war minister’s number two did not step into his shoes because he was being blackmailed by a rentboy. The charge was untrue but the damage was done and he resigned anyway.

So sex scandals continue to hold sway over the public mind, which is why Ted Cruz is sweating bullets over the National Enquirer story. There has always been an oozing Uriah Heep insincerity about him that is hard to take. His voice ranges from confident orator to treacly sympathy with no stop in between. Trump lies, he says, but everybody knows that so the charge comes in with a generous built-in discount. I expect pictures to appear in the tabloid’s issue that is timed for the maximum impact on a brokered convention. Jeb called himself “the joyous tortoise” at one point in his campaign, but maybe another deserves that laurel. President Kasich—does that work for you? The permanent GOP establishment is about to throw itself weeping on his lapels. He is the ultimate outsider’s insider.

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